Yury Schmidt: "I Understood I Was Defending People against a Machine that has No Soul and Knows No Mercy"

Vera Vasilieva, 17/05/12 

Source: HRO.org 

Human rights defenders  Moscow city & Moscow region 

On 15 May 2012 at the Moscow offices of the Memorial Human Rights Centre on Karetny Ryad an evening was held in honour of lawyer Yury Markovich Schmidt's 75th birthday. The official part of the event included a conference on the theme: "Being a Lawyer: Profession, Vocation, Duty". The second unofficial part provided speakers and the numerous guests with an opportunity to congratulate Yury Schmidt on his birthday. 

Arseny Roginsky, chair of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre: 
It is a great honour for me to open this evening. We decided to call our conference "Being a Lawyer: Profession, Vocation, Duty". Each one of these words could be fittingly applied to Yury Markovich. I would like to recall a few facts about him. 

Yury Markovich was born in Leningrad in 1937. His farther, Mark Rakhmilievich Levin and mother Natalya Karlovna Schmidt met in a village in Siberia where they were both living in exile. After a certain time Natalya Karlovna was allowed to return to Leningrad where Yury was born on 10 May. The first time Yury saw his father was in 1956 after the latter had spent 26 years in a concentration camp. 

Yury Markovich graduated from the Law Faculty of Leningrad State University and became a lawyer in 1960, in other words his legal career spans over half a century. 

For a long time Yury Markovich was not allowed to defend those people he had been wanting to defend his whole life because the Soviet authorities would not give him the right to do so. In the Soviet Union you needed special clearance in order to conduct political cases. I remember well how Yury fought to get the right to defend Sergey Adamovich Kovalev. 

But not being able to defend him "directly", he was a constant and vital consultant to us. When someone was summoned for questioning they would rush to Yury to ask him what to do. When there was ever any trouble with the authorities people would also come running to Yury to find out how they should behave. When lawyers were needed, and they were very difficult to find, people would come running to Yury and with his help these lawyers would be found. 

And then the Soviet regime came to an end and he was able to really break out, although his work in ordinary criminal cases was also exceptional. I recall a number of cases that Yury conducted in the new era. 

In 1989 there was the case of Arkady Manucharov - one of the leaders of the Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1991 there was a case involving the then head of the South Ossetian Republic Torez Kulumbegov, who was accused by the Georgian authorities of separatism and inciting disorder. In 1993 there was the case of the Uzbek dissident Abdumannob Pulatov who was accused of libelling President Islam Karimov. In 1996, Yury supported a civil claim brought by Afghan refugees against the Russian Federal Migration Service. In 1997 there was the case of Andrey Miroshnichenko, a Russian military pensioner who was illegally deported from Estonia. 

Yury's most important case was of course that of the naval officer Aleksandr Nikitin who was accused of espionage. 

Not to mention all these recent years that he has spent defending Mikhail Khodorkovsky. 

Photo report Vera Vasilieva, HRO.org 

Yury Schmidt, lawyer:
It would be rather banal to say that I'm feeling a bit nervous, but seeing so many people and such people as well - is just a great happiness. As a rule, I only feel really self-confident when I'm in court, and in the last couple of decades at public demonstrations as well. That has also turned out to be a form of public address that also suits me. On account of my health I had to turn down all the invitations to celebrate my birthday in St. Petersburg. But there was no way that I could turn down an invitation from Arseny Roginsky and I am very glad that I didn’t. 

I have got to know a lot of journalists both in recent years and in the last century, when the Nikitin case was being heard, and ever since 2004 when I had the honour of defending Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and they often ask me: "When was it easier to work - the Brezhnev era or the current era?" 

The current era needs to be split up into two parts - they are the pre-Putin years and the times we are currently living through. 

There is little to distinguish our current times and the 1960s. In other words, we have been evolving backwards, initially in small steps, starting with the arrest in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, and then by leaps and bounds in our striving to return to our "wonderful" past. 

Nevertheless, I can say that it was easier to work in the USSR. It sounds paradoxical, but the main thing was that there was less of a sense of responsibility. Many of my old comrades used to say to me: "You know, all the same, nothing depends on us. Don't take things to heart so much." 

That is the only thing I was never able to do - not take things to heart so much. 

This relative levity was also to do with the fact that the toolkit that we had at our disposal was quite different and the defence's capabilities were also completely different. I was around at the time when a lawyer was only allowed on to a case at the preliminary court hearing stage. Then lawyers were allowed to familiarise themselves with the case materials before the hearing. Then, after a very long time, the accused was allowed to invite a lawyer onto a case after the indictment was brought. And now, as you yourselves know, a lawyer may even take part in proceedings when a person has been called as a witness. 

Despite the way that time speeds by, very little changes in the world of the courts. For instance, the number of acquittal verdicts back then was perhaps even a little higher than today. For example, I succeeded in getting five acquittals in the first thirty years of my career as a lawyer. But there is also another very interesting thing to note here. The small number of acquittals in the USSR was compensated by the right of the court to remand a case for further investigation. And a great many "rotten" cases, which the judges decided not to close with an acquittal verdict, were quietly "put out of their misery" during the additional investigation stage. 

I remember very well when the Aleksandr Nikitin case was sent for additional investigation for the first time, I spent a long time explaining to the lawyers from the Bellona Organisation what that meant. And when I had finished explaining this to my colleagues they said: "Yury, but don't you see that this is completely unlawful! It has to be challenged." And although I agonised over it, although I knew that I would be losing what had been a very important tool to get positive decisions in court, I nevertheless initiated a case in the Constitutional Court against an unlawful remand for additional investigation. And I won that as well. But that was a time, and a Constitutional Court, that was still capable of adopting decisions such as that one. 

No matter how much people debated this subject and no matter how many rulings were given as a result of this precedent, the law of statistics still reigns and continues to reign in our judicial system. A judge is appraised on the number of overturned and amended verdicts as much today as in the days when I first started out on my career. 

When I was a student the courts were ruled by the principle of objective truth. We had it instilled into us that, like God's court in heaven, any court of any district or any cockroach-ridden provincial backwater which might pronounce the most illiterate verdict does not just establish anything - it establishes an objective truth. 

Nevertheless, how do our current times differ from those "earlier" times? General speaking, back then there was total control over the courts. There existed such a thing as state policy in the fields of law enforcement and in the activities of the courts. And we were constantly being "bombarded" by the latest campaign. That the book should be thrown at "hooligans", and then "bribe-takers" or "foreign currency changers" and then there were the "counterfeiters" and so on and so forth. The Ministry of Justice kept a constant watch to ensure that judges didn't step out of line. The barest step to the right or left was interpreted as a bid for escape. A judge had to choose between their career or their conscience. The overwhelming majority chose their career. 

There is none of this today. Today, despite everything, the law works in the courts - with the exception of those cases where there is a political interest or corruption is involved. In all the remaining cases judges are not kept on such a short lead. They choose the length of the lead themselves. 

I have 50 years of experience at the bar. Almost as if in preparation for today's celebration, the Soviet authorities excluded me from the bar, they didn't succeed at the first attempt but nevertheless they managed in the end. I fought for my reinstatement, and within two years I had won it. And that's how it's turned out that the 50th anniversary of my practice as a lawyer was "fated" to coincide with my 75th birthday. 

I have already been speaking for some time and I still haven't got to the theme of our conference: "Being a Lawyer: Profession, Vocation, Duty". I believe that I am a lawyer by vocation. 

But fate has played very large role in this. I knew very little about my father from the time of his arrest in 1937 until his unexpected "resurrection from the dead" at the end of 1955. At that time a letter arrived from him to an address that he had known since before the war. And it turned out that we were still alive, we hadn't died of starvation during the siege, we hadn't been bombed and my mother hadn't re-married even though she had had the opportunity. 

In short, I got into the law faculty quite by chance. Before this my mother had been the overriding influence on me. Being a biologist she tried to persuade me to take up biology. But my aunty was an actress and she was convinced that I had an undoubted talent for the stage. In my childhood she used to "drill" me to recite Ivan Krylov's fables and I still remember a good half of them today. During the war my aunt would take me to hospitals and concerts where I would be stood on a chair and recite: "With pots the cart was loaded..." 

Therefore, in my first year after school, I tried to get into the theatre institute, where, happily, I wasn't accepted. And then I went to the medical college which also didn't let me in. 

The following year I got into the university's faculty of law. Even during the interview the Deputy Dean told me: "If your father has been in prison, you won't be able to work as a judge, prosecutor or investigator. As if I would have been allowed to work as a judge or prosecutor with my German surname - Schmidt and my Jewish patronymic - Yury Markovich. But the Deputy Dean decided she needed to dot all the "i's" and cross the "t's" and nevertheless said: "Unless you want to become a lawyer?" 

For an 18 year old young man it was like a wake-up call, and I replied: "That will suit me fine." 

At my graduation ceremony I was the only person on my course who wasn't congratulated with a handshake by the Dean or any of his deputies. But there was one professor who came up to me and made a point of shaking my hand. 

Of course, they tried to do everything they could to block my entry into the Leningrad College of Lawyers. And although all the same I was accepted there, it wasn't easy. 

For the first 30 years of my career I basically worked as a criminal lawyer. I simply carried out my duty and didn't feel any moral discomfort about the people I happened to have to defend. I understood perfectly well that I was defending people against a machine that has no soul and knows no mercy. And this was a more than adequate incentive to use my professional abilities and to be at ease with my conscience. 

But then a new era dawned, which started for me with the Arkady Manucharov case, which I took on at the request of Andrei Dmitrievich Sakharov. It was a political case and I got a real taste for this type of work at the time. 

Today is an era when there is an endless line of "these types" of case. But I don't have the strength any more. 

I have heard a lot of very flattering words addressed to me regarding my anniversary. But I have to tell you honestly that I'm not going to be able to justify these advance compliments with actions. But I have truly tried to strengthen the authority of my profession and tried to live a life that was never sullied with shame. And, probably, if there has been some sort of achievement in my life then that would be it. 

Sergei Kovalev, chair of the Andrei Sakharov Foundation: 
It is with great joy that I would like to congratulate Yury on his birthday. I believe it to be a great honour to be amongst the first at our conference to be able to do this. We have known each other for a very long time. At times we have exchanged strong words. I have been on the receiving end of stinging criticism. But there was never the slightest chance that this criticism should spill over into enmity. 

But now I would like to speak about something other than my friend Yury whose birthday we are celebrating. I would like to say something about the peculiarities of our country. And this relates not only to the legal profession, but if you dig deep enough, it is something that applies to every profession. 

It is something that bewilders me and something that, in my opinion, is completely impenetrable to our friends born beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. What are the requirements abroad in order to be a good lawyer? Naturally, a great deal of knowledge and the ability to know your way around the issues of the law. An understanding of your obligations. You need to be able to use every legal method available to you in order to convince the respected court of whatever it is you are trying to convince them about. Of course, this requires a wide-ranging and high level of cultivation. It would after all be a pretty poor lawyer who couldn’t make a well marshalled speech, wouldn’t it? 

Now, let us take a look at the countries beyond the borders of the former Soviet Union. A huge number of professionals have all the qualities that I have just listed and many more besides. They are good lawyers. This is enough for them to maintain a sense of self-respect. 

But we live in a country where these qualities are woefully lacking. In order to be like this in our country doesn't just make you a good lawyer - it requires you to be a hero. A hero, because it means that you have chosen to take the risk of being conscientious and honest in your chosen profession. 

Tamara Morshchakova, former judge at the Constitutional Court: 
Everyone has been talking about their worries when preparing for today's wonderful celebration, and I am no exception. I was very anxious and for the first time in my life last night instead of bullet points I wrote down the text of my speech in full. A text full of my sincerest expressions of love. Not only to Yury Markovich Schmidt but also to his profession. 

There are specific qualities required of a human rights advocate that make one relate to this profession with some awe. Yes, we are talking about the profession of "lawyer", but in actual fact the issue here is that those who belong to this profession are called upon to lay bare the moral purpose of the law more than any other professional. 

As we are gathered here today to celebrate Yury Markovich's birthday, I have to say that his work and the way that he has lived his life has been the most natural expression and affirmation of the moral rules and guiding principles of how a lawyer should work and what the legal profession should be. 

In the past and in today's reality, lawyers are placed in a very difficult and conflicting, but very honourable and almost heroic, position with regards the authorities and the state. Lawyers always appear to be dissenters, when the authorities do not want to be ruled by the law, when they impinge upon human rights and freedoms, which should be defended as things of the highest value. 

Despite all this, there have always been good lawyers whose conduct has formed an ideal that can be passed on and ingrained. They act as an ideal not only for young people who are looking for a role model in their lives, but also for older people for whom this conduct acts as a touchstone in their lives. 

And here I would like to recall something that is very pertinent to the person whose birthday we are celebrating. The ideal way of conducting oneself morally does not have to be shown many times. It suffices just to do it once. 

I am very fond of Andrey Bitov's short essay about tradition. It is literally a few lines long, but these lines contain a remarkable and very precise truth: "It only takes one incident to create a tradition." 

I would like to add that: "it only takes one person to create a tradition". Because there don't need to be many examples. They will multiply and proliferate of their own accord later on, and this is what makes up the natural development of human consciousness. I think that through his behaviour and his work Yury Markovich has always created these sorts of ideals which have gone on to inspire very many others. 

Svetlana Gannushkina, member of the board of Memorial Human Rights Centre: 
I have known Yury Markovich since 1993 - right from that time when he was defending the interests of those Afghan refugees who had brought claims against the Federal Migration Service. Nobody else took an interest in these refugees. Yury Markovich was the first person who took on these sorts of cases, who helped these people in court and who began to develop this area of the law. It is a very "tricky" area of law, which didn't even exist in Soviet times and which up until that moment in 1993 had effectively not existed in the post-Soviet space either. 

Since that time I have been working for many years with Yury Markovich Schmidt's students. And I would like to say that Yury Markovich's school is a school that teaches the mastery of the legal trade to the highest standards. His lawyers are courageous, indeed they often have to be heroes when defending the victims of the crimes committed by neo-Nazis. Where they not only have threats shouted at them in court but also directed at them by phone into their own homes. These are people who defend the most unfortunate, the most defenceless and the most traumatised of all people - refugees. 

These are people who have the ability to treat the law like a living organism, a quality that I highly value in a lawyer. They understand that the law is a living thing and they are capable of creating new mechanisms for dealing with it. They are able to treat their clients humanely and to engage with the legal process creatively. They have mastered the workings of both the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Committee for Human Rights. They are remarkable professionals. There are more than just a few of them now and their knowledge is spreading. These young people are living with a new type of legal consciousness. And for this, Yury Markovich, we owe you the deepest respect and gratitude. 

Marie-Louisa Beck, Green Party deputy at the Bundestag: 
Dear Yury Markovich, I would like to make three declarations of love all rolled into one. Firstly, to Yury Markovich as a person, secondly to Yury Markovich as a lawyer, and thirdly to Yury Markovich as a defender of human rights. 

When I was looking for a concept, which might roll all these qualities into one, it was the word "integrity" that came into my head. Integrity as a lawyer, integrity as a defender of human rights and political integrity. These are all things that you have brought to us in Germany. 

And the fact that in the West there is now a widespread view that Mikhail Khodorkovsky should not be seen as an oligarch who got what he deserved, the fact that on the basis of the example of the Mikhail Khodorkovsky case the essential nature of the current Russian judicial system has been revealed, along with the corruption, the illegal cronyism and the flouting of legal regulations, all this has been brought to light by you. 

In the judicial hearings and in the presence of Judge Danilkin, I could feel how much you were suffering as a result of the fact that, instead of law, this system was enforcing lawlessness and the violation of rights. And despite the fact that we in the West do not have such heroes, because in our system there isn't such an acute need for such heroes, nevertheless we sense this integrity that emanates from Yury Markovich. There is a little badge pinned to the lapel of Yury Markovich's jacket. It is a sign that the President of Germany also understands the meaning of integrity. Last February Yury Markovich was awarded the Federal Cross for this integrity. And I am very glad of this. 

With regards the many other tasks facing us, then, it is we who are obliged to see them through. As a person you call upon us to take the responsibility upon ourselves to engage with those things that you have been involved with throughout the whole of your life. We will take these responsibilities upon ourselves so that the case of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and other political prisoners will not be forgotten, including by us in the West. And we are interested to know to what extent the principles of the rule of law are observed here in Russia. So that we in the Council of Europe, of which Russia is a full member, having signed the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, can really hold Russia to its word. And it is our responsibility to respect the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, all the more so as we know how important it is for Russia. 

Yury, you have brought so much to Germany. It increases our respect for the people working in the Russian legal system, a respect which has always existed. 

You are a person who spent the first years of your life in Leningrad, a city that went through a long siege at the hands of the Wehrmacht. I am very glad that after all this you are prepared to see people from Germany as friends. I am very glad that we are sitting side by side and that we are united by a common spirit. 

Aleksei Simonov, film director and president of the Glasnost Defence Foundation: 
I was going to compare the profession of a film director to that of a lawyer. What is it that unites these professions? 

As Stanislav Ezhi Lets said, "We have a tendency to say that a situation is hopeless when the clearest way out of it is one that we don't like". The director's profession requires one to find ways out of hopeless situations every day. In my view, the lawyer's profession in today's Russia amounts to exactly the same. It is a daily search to find a way out of the hopeless situations that the circumstances of life place us in. 

Schmidt said that he had wanted to become an actor. In the lawyer's profession there is compelling need to work with actors. However, unlike the majority of directors, a lawyer has to deal with unprofessional actors. As a rule, a lawyer's defendant has to play the role of an actor to a significant extent. The lawyer has to work with him in order to coach him how to play his role correctly. This is no simple feat. 

Both the director and the lawyer have to be strong stomached. Meaning that you have to make a choice. You are asked to defend this person and that means that you defend this person. You are asked to do this screen play, and that means that you do that screen play. 

If you take a close look at a lawyer or a director's CV, the totality of their work says a lot more about them than they themselves would like. 

For example, Mikhail Ilyich Romm is a remarkable director who shot "The Doughnut", "The Thirteen" and "Nine Days of One Year". But between these great works he shot two films in praise of Lenin, and there's no getting away from this. And they are charming, and Romm is to blame for the fact that they remain charming to this day. 

And this is the crux of the matter. Schmidt has never had a Lenin period in the middle of his career. He went straight from "The Thirteen" to Khodorkovsky.